The Providence of God and the Suffering of Humanity

A former student of mine emailed me the other day to get my thoughts about the perennial question of God’s providence amidst the suffering of humanity. Suffering that has experienced a new breadth and depth in the midst of the pandemic. This former student is off the charts in her sense of justice and empathy and thus the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on marginalized groups has been of great concern to her, as it has to me and others.

One point that I should have made clear in my letter is that human suffering often results from three sources: harm perpetrated upon another from acts of injustice; self-inflicted harm caused by acts contrary to our own good or harm experienced through the fragility of life and health. In some ways, the pandemic involves a matrix of all three sources of harm. By faith and through experience, I know that God, who does not cause harm, is always present to accompany, heal and restore us as we journey through life – a life which includes both joy and suffering. Another point I missed in my response is that inviting God to heal our wounded hearts is perhaps one of the most important acts of faith for any believer. Its where new life and a new horizon begin.

At another point in her response, she asks the question shouldn’t we investigate what is so good about free will if we make such a mess out of it? This question really goes to crux of the matter and the only way forward for a more just and humane world – we wouldn’t make such a mess out of freedom, if we would learn to walk with God as beneficiaries of God’s grace, light and truth. This a is lesson we seem hard pressed to learn through the epochs of history. That said, Pope Benedict and the other popes remind us that justice is a proof of eternal life as the long arc of justice extends to divine judgment. Additionally, her response also rightly critiques Christians who offer shallow and empty platitudes in response to harm and death. Rather, in response to the harm that is caused by injustice Christian voices should be united in prophetic protest.

Even if you are not able to trudge though my response below, I would encourage you to go to the final paragraph for some helpful sources which shed more light on the question of God’s providence and the suffering of humanity. The letter follows below, with minor edits to fit this new context. Please note that I have received permission from my former student to publish my letter here.

Thank you for your email the other day and thanks also for your patience as I have gathered my thoughts and taken your question to prayer. I hope my answer is helpful in some regard, notwithstanding the fact that human suffering and the goodness of God can at times seem like an impenetrable topic. I intended for my response to not be so long as to be impenetrable itself, but sufficient enough in substance to get at some important nuances and the crux of the matter.

I am unsurprised by your question of squaring human suffering with the nature of God because it – the theodicy question – has been asked and not sufficiently answered for more than two millennia. I do not propose to conquer that grand mountain in what follows. That said, there are some important truths – borne of experience, justice faith and Christian hope that can help our ascent.

Moving now to the question at hand – the question of theodicy – how a good and loving God, a truth that Christianity communicates about the nature of God, can permit so much human suffering, the likes of which are on full display through this pandemic. First, I think a distinction is in order between God’s active will and God’s permissive will – i.e. what God causes or affects and what God allows. The Catholic tradition holds much about God and the nature of the human person and indeed life itself in dialectic tension, e.g. that the God of Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human. This Catholic both/and is a central dimension of the Catholic intellectual tradition. So it is with God’s grace and providence vis-à-vis God’s created world, including humanity. The Catholic tradition rejects two extremes when speaking and teaching about God and God’s relationship with humanity – the Watchmaker God (Deist conception of God) who creates us and completely leaves the picture and the Puppeteer God who controls our every move and thus inhibits our freedom. Rather, the Church teaches and attempts to live in the heart of the mystery of God’s providence that celebrates both God’s grace, which is freely extended to humanity, and our freedom, which can be exercised in cooperation with God’s grace or apart from divine grace.

Permit me a few more words about God’s providence as it relates to the pandemic. You alluded to a dimension of this mystery in your thoughtful question. Freedom and love are critical to the story of God’s interaction with humanity. In freedom and love God chose to create the world and for the human person to be created in God’s image and likeness, including bestowing the attendant gifts of freedom and reason. We are made from love and for love – love is our origin and destiny. Our deepest meaning and fulfillment are found in love. God continuously offers us divine love but never imposes it upon us, as God respects our freedom. The gift of freedom, which is also a responsibility, accompanies the primary human vocation to love God and neighbor; we cannot fulfill our vocation to love without freedom. This is why when I witness Christian weddings, I ask both parties whether they are approaching the sacrament freely, wholeheartedly and without coercion. God’s offer of grace through the sacramental life of the Church is a gift to his children to experience the divine life and love of God – a gift which also respects our freedom to receive this grace.  

Back to the question of the pandemic – I am confident of the following two statements: God actively wills that all people experience goodness and life eternal; God does not actively will the pandemic and the suffering of God’s creation. So, while God actively desires and seeks our goodness and salvation, God does not actively seek our suffering. The desire to inflict pain would be contrary to God’s goodness. But, I think it is also true that God’s permissive will has allowed the pandemic. In other words, God appears to have chosen to not supernaturally enter into the world to stop the pandemic and its effects.

Why? Perhaps again, it goes back to the question of the nature of God and our nature and that God respects our freedom. Perhaps in allowing the pandemic, God is revealing to us and teaching us all sorts of lessons that we would not have otherwise learned – including that it is madness and sheer folly to walk apart from God’s grace and to continue the acts of brutal injustice that so many structures of social sin perpetrate on the poor and marginalized. This is one of the things that is so difficult to see and where the suffering is so acute – that those who are already struggling as the victims of injustice are disproportionately affected by the pandemic – it seems doubly cruel.

However, in allowing the pandemic and society’s injustices to be laid bare through the pernicious effects of the pandemic, God is also allowing us to see the world that we have made – not as God intends it in justice and peace – but as we have made, exercising our freedom not for the good of others and noble purposes, but for selfish pursuit of material gain.  So much suffering in the world and the lack of peace are caused by sin, selfishness and injustice. This is a morality play that is all too real for those who suffer. Will we lean the lesson this time? Will we accept the invitation of God to build a more humane world?

Before I end my letter by suggesting some resources that might be helpful to your further exploration of the topic, I would like to affirmatively witness to what I believe are some relevant truths – borne of experience and faith. First, I have personally grown the most and have learned the most through times of real adversity and suffering. It might be that it took a pandemic and its devastating effects to wake us up and warn us that we are walking the wrong way in the dark – apart from God’s gracious light. Scripture reveals that God most clearly manifests divine goodness and glory at the times when humanity is out of answers and all seems lost. It in these moments, bordering on helplessness and despair, that God enters into our crisis and speaks a word of comfort and peace – extending a divine hand to raise us and restore us to our original dignity. It was in the moments in my life of helplessness and suffering that I have indeed felt the gracious presence of God beside me – guiding, healing, lifting and restoring me. By faith, I know that in this time of darkness and need as a society and world, God’s glory will shine forth. Bet on it!

I conclude my letter by sharing a number of sources from which I have drawn inspiration during this challenging time as well as a recent talk I gave that ties some of themes above together. I begin with Papa Francesco and the stirring and prophetic words spoken by our wise pope weeks before Easter in a darkened and empty St. Peter’s Square. Secondly, I recommend an Easter column by a Catholic columnist, Ross Douthat who took up the topic of your question in the NY Times. Third, I loved a recent quote by Sonya Renee Taylor who exhorts us to not go back to way life was before the pandemic. Fourth, I recommend watching the beautiful film, A Hidden Life which also takes up a number of themes implicit in your question. Fifth, I recommend COVID Reflections by Father Ron Rohlheiser which is on point and enlightening. Finally, I recently gave a talk on the Wounded American Culture which addresses many of the issues alluded to above. It ends on a note of hope. I look forward to your suggestions as well!